*. The historical biopic is Oscar-bait. These movies aren’t usually expected to make money, and Judas and the Black Messiah didn’t ($7 million box office on a $26 million budget). But the august Academy threw a curveball this time, bizarrely nominating co-stars Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield for Best Supporting Actor. I wonder what was up with that. On the face of it, it makes no sense.
*. Another problem with biopics, and one that compounds with the Oscar-bait issue, is the tendency for them to go the way of hagiography. The test case here is a movie like Gandhi, but most historical biopics present their main characters as saints in some way, either literally (Becket, A Man for All Seasons) or in the secular form (Silkwood, Schindler’s List). After all, why make a movie about a bad guy? Unless, of course, he’s a serial killer.
*. This is again the issue here. Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) is called the Black messiah ironically by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), but as the interviews included with the DVD suggest, many of the people involved with the project saw him as a Jesus figure — if not the literal messiah then at least a community leader who is martyred for the cause.
*. All of which may be true, but I found the saintly Hampton flat and dull. If we’re going to spend this much time with someone it would help if he were a little more well-rounded. I’m not sure any shade is thrown on Hampton here at all. Even assuming he was this good a man, was he not complex as well?
*. This should have left the door wide open for Lakeith Stanfield to steal the show as the conflicted informant Bill O’Neal, but his character never comes to life either. I should say that I don’t blame the actors in either case. It’s just that writer-director Shaka King doesn’t give them much to play with.
*. The results didn’t seem a bit more interesting than the biopics of yore, and I don’t think it’s a movie that’s likely to last a any longer. One test for movies like this is if you find yourself wishing you were watching a documentary or reading a book on the subject. My mind was heading in this direction after the first half hour, and I later did search out more information on Hampton. I can credit Judas and the Black Messiah for that much, even though it’s a bit of a back-handed compliment for a movie that clearly had higher ambitions.